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Chemical magic transforms skin cells into nerve cells

Small-molecule drugs provide simpler alternative to genes delivered by viruses

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12:00pm, August 6, 2015

CHEMICAL COCKTAIL  Adult skin cells begin to transform into neurons (blue circles with colorful tendrils) just a week after being dosed with seven small-molecule drugs.

In a feat of biological wizardry worthy of Harry Potter, scientists have transformed skin cells into nerve cells — no magic wand required.

Just a handful of chemicals can conjure up nerve cells that look and act like the real thing, Chinese researchers report August 6 in two studies in Cell Stem Cell. Even skin cells from Alzheimer’s patients can morph into seemingly healthy neurons, one of the new studies showed. The other reported a similar feat using mouse cells. Scientists have transformed skin cells into nerve cells before, but not as simply.

“I think it’s a big deal,” says Stanford University stem cell biologist Marius Wernig.

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